Telephone Poles & Longevity

Professor T.J. Starker started the pole farm at Peavy Arboretum in 1928, making it the oldest research project in OSU’s Research Forests. It is also one of the oldest and largest utility pole preservative test sites in the United States.

Starker understood that wood is a useful, renewable resource. One tree can serve as a utility pole for 60-80 years, as long as it is chemically treated and maintained in the correct fashion. Without chemical treatment, a Douglas-fir tree would last only three to five years, while a cedar tree would last 30-60 years. Preservative treatments make utility poles endure more, meaning fewer trees are used over time. Areas managed for timber are required by law to be replanted with trees, and many of these areas also provide wildlife habitats.

At the pole farm, OSU researchers test different preservatives to see how long they last, how effective they are, and how they impact the environment. Study results help companies prevent damage from insects and decay in wooden utility poles. The type and amount of chemical needed depends on where the pole is used (soggy western Oregon versus dry eastern Oregon, for example). Utility poles are expensive to make and install, so the goal is to get them to last for a long time while using the least amount of chemicals possible. Preservative treatments for decks, railroad ties, buildings, and other wood products are tested here too.

These study results help more people than you might think. In 1980, OSU started the Utility Pole Research Cooperative, made up of utility services, chemical companies, and inspection agencies. Having an “outside” perspective, OSU is able to provide these groups with accurate and objective data to use in creating products and regulating chemical use. Day to day society benefits from this research too! Careful and efficient use of preservatives reduces environmental exposure to chemicals. Utility poles that last longer mean fewer trees are used over time, cutting utility costs and reducing the number of trees needed to be cut down. 

The information above was obtained with permission from an OSU Research Forests interpretive sign, and paraphrased for clarity by the author.

By Ari Blatt